Two photographers linked by a high degree of manipulation in their work, Ruud van Empel and Matthew Brandt, appear in a conjoined show at Jackson Fine Art.
Dutch photographer Ruud van Empel is the epitome of the modern photographer working with the most sophisticated digital tools at hand to create remarkably mediated images. His strange, arresting photographs of children are like the spawn of Margaret Keane and Hummel. Their perfection is of the Dr. Frankenstein sort, created by digitally collaging hundreds of images in Photoshop to create creepy-gorgeous portraits.
Van Empel often takes black children as his subjects, envisioning perfect, divine, innocent creatures in a vision of blackness rarely seen in art history or popular culture. Van Empel’s dewy, doll-like wide-eyed waifs dwell in a paradisaical Eden and seem to have harnessed the forces of nature — poppies and thistle, colorful butterflies and ladybugs — into a concert of arresting, fragile loveliness. But in this phase of van Empel’s work, it can feel like a paradise lost. Van Empel’s most recent depictions of black children have a political edge, their innocence tainted by a dangerous world, a weight added to their tiny shoulders.
Darkness intrudes like a predator’s shadow cast on a fairy-tale kingdom. The little boy in “Mood #7” captured in profile echoes the vulnerable young boy in Barry Jenkins’ film “Moonlight,” his small shirtless body looking remarkably vulnerable against a textured green backdrop.
In “Mood #11,” a girl in a blue dress with a prim lace collar is caught in a beam of light, her face in darkness on one side and in light on the other, splitting her into two people, one of whom could easily be white. How random and inconsequential the color of our skin is — the image suggests — and yet how absurdly, perilously important and weighty in the real world.
While van Empel is indebted to modern technology, Matthew Brandt looks backward, to photography’s analog origins and the 19th-century albumen printing process, albeit while still questioning the truth and purity that photography promises viewers. Brandt has taken Atlanta as his project in “1864” fixating on two clichés of the South: the peach and the Civil War.
For his lovely peach still-life images, Brandt sources Styrofoam replicas made in China, lending an air of artifice to this Southern touchstone. Brandt’s peach studies are the most satisfying in “1864” for creating a simulation of the thing itself and subverting the tradition of the still life in that blatant fakery. Perhaps, Brandt’s peaches tease, our vision of the South is just as manufactured.
Brandt’s photographs of Atlanta, meanwhile, are riffs on photographer George N. Barnard’s 19th-century images of a devastated Atlanta post-Sherman. Brandt has gone back to those source images housed at the Library of Congress and printed new photographs from Barnard’s images, while also incorporating the ingredients for peach pie — cinnamon, sugar, salt, butter, flour and peaches — into the albumen photo developing process. It is a continuation of Brandt’s fascinating incorporation into the developing process, of some physical trace of his subjects: the actual source water in his portraits of “Lakes and Reservoirs” or the tears of his subjects incorporated into their portraits.
Though the works themselves are often striking, delicate and ephemeral like a sketch made in dust that could be blown away with a sigh, the conceit of the work is conceptually overloaded, a complex exercise in revisiting the past and Southern clichés that may not yield the vivid results or insight into the region all of that manipulation promises.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.